Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2003

By James Verini

“How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I have undertaken in the pursuit of books!”

— Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

It should be said from the start that going to used-book stores is, at best, a useless pursuit. It is reversionary, unhealthy even. Used-book stores are filled with books, dusty, old, sinus-polluting books and, as if that weren’t enough, with the kind of people you make a conscious effort to avoid during the day — ne’er do-wells, layabouts, semi-employed dissertation candidates and self-proclaimed bibliophiles who consider writers such as Walter Benjamin, dead since 1940, their real friends.

Used-book stores are not where you absorb relevant knowledge; they are not where you go to bone up on Steven Pinker’s latest thoughts on cognitive theory, to peruse the newest campaign biographies or to sneak a cheaper copy of “The Da Vinci Code” so you can affordably keep up with cocktail conversation.

If you like to make the most of your life, used-book stores can seem an absolute waste of time. That is precisely what makes spending time in them so worthwhile.

For devotees of the used-book store, Los Angeles has quietly become one of the last bastions, for L.A. has become one of the last great American book towns. New York may be home to the publishing industry and Lewis Lapham’s thesaurus, Chicago still has Saul Bellow, but in both those cities high rents and the Internet have driven many of the venerable used- and rare-book stores out of business.

But here, the book business is thriving. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the greater Los Angeles area is the largest book market in the country now with 21.5% of the books sold by independent bookstores, the highest percentage in the country.

In social as well as economic terms, L.A. is a wordy town as never before. Witness last year’s “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology,” from stuffy Library of America, and last month’s “The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles.” The Los Angeles Times Click for Enhanced Coverage Linking SearchesFestival of Books now is the largest event of its kind in the country. Look at the lineup of authors the West Hollywood store Book Soup attracts, and at the recent national syndication of the impossibly literate radio show “Bookworm,” a KCRW-FM creation.

For truly devoted book nuts, however, for those who know what they’re doing is hopelessly archaic and love it, the used-books store still is the center of the universe. Because — before you get too hopeful about the state of civilization — books are, let’s face it, on their deathbed. As an art and a business, they’re obsolete. They have been for the better part of a century. They may continue to be for a century more. That is their charm.

Borders and Barnes & Noble would want to deny this. But it is at the used-books store, the least sensible of all businesses, a place perpetually teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, where you can drink in the utter futility of books without a $4 latte chaser.

Take, for instance, what probably is the best establishment in the greater Los Angeles area — certainly the most voluminous — Acres of Books, on Long Beach Boulevard in Long Beach.

The name is not an exaggeration. Acres has, by a conservative estimate, 750,000 books on its bowed, rotting shelves (the number probably is closer to 1 million). “More books than anybody in their right mind needs,” acknowledges Jackie Smith, who has worked in the store since 1976 and now owns it (her husband’s grandfather opened it in the 1930s).

You’ll find everything from Kakfa to books on games to play with your cat, studies of Mesopotamian sexual practices to the early novels of Henry Fielding, and in every condition from mint first edition to dog-eared and ragged.

You’ll discover, as one reporter did, the first volume of Evelyn Waugh’s very hard-to-find one-volume autobiography (he planned three, but then died), “A Little Learning.” And for $5, hard-bound, no less.

Disregard your claustrophobia and the justifiable fear of getting smothered beneath the Pisa-like spires of books, and have one of the helpful Sonic Youth clerks help you to the section on “Hackysack, Yo-Yo’s and Juggling.” Nearby, look over the three full shelves devoted to the history and study of prostitution. And don’t forget the Frank Cotton Memorial Oddball shelves, named for the late head clerk of Acres, who until his death in 1988 functioned as the store’s only computer. There, you find a volume titled “14,000 Things to Be Happy About,” and another called “The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics.”

Along with these testaments to the misguided history of human curiosity, there are any number of misguided, curious humans to be wondered at, shuffling along with that awkward sidelong gait particular to creatures used to over-tight bookstore aisles. Pale and near-sighted from years of 50-watt bulbs, they gaze up at titles mostly long forgotten, at authors mostly dead and buried, E.M. Forster’s words from “Howards End” perhaps ringing in their ears: “Only connect….only connect.”

The proximity of the present to the past — of life to death — in used-book stores is electrifying. In a pre-digital electrical way.

Take the Eclectic Collector, a dark, breezy hole in the wall just off the pier in Hermosa Beach. Presided over by Tom Allard, a Barnaby Rudge-type who can usually be found outside the shop in a Hawaiian shirt, smoking, the Collector is usually empty. A wholly different experience from Acres, it is the kind of place where you can sit down with a copy of, for example, “Legendary Yachts: The Great American Yachts from Crowningshield’s Cleopatra’s Barge to Today’s Intrepid Bill Robinson” (1971, $8.50), and lose yourself for hours in nautical luxuries.

Lose yourself in a book, off the pier in Hermosa? What exactly was being smoked on the pier beforehand, you ask?

But Los Angeles has lately come to the forefront in keeping the tradition of bibliomaniacal uselessness alive. As the university libraries of Southern California strive to keep pace with mushrooming student populations, and as the rising cost of books drives students and parents to look for better values, the secondhand reading business is thriving along with the likes of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

A recent tally by The Times uncovered roughly 40 used- and rare-book stores in the greater L.A. area. Although they tend to occupy low-rent districts, they exist in virtually every corner — Hollywood, Van Nuys, Thousand Oaks, Silver Lake, Westwood, Glendale — and in dizzying variety.

They cater to chefs (Cook’s Library on 3rd Street in L.A.), photographers (Dawson’s on Larchmont in L.A.), astrologers and soul-searchers (Bodhi Tree used book annex, on Melrose in West Hollywood).

Looking for an obscure work of 18th century German philosophy? Try Angel City Bookstore in Santa Monica. Want to know how to decorate a set entirely in bed linen? Book City in Hollywood. Looking for an obscure erotic science-fiction novel signed by the author? Bookfellows in Glendale. Need an early word of Samuel Johnson’s? Why, Sam: Johnson’s Bookshop on Pico, of course, where the owner, Bob Klein, a literature professor and novelist, will even deign to discuss the Doctor with you.

This being Los Angeles, of course, most stores abound in movie star biographies, self-help guides and Buddhism. Automobiles and art books often show up in force too.

Still, some proprietors are not sanguine about the future. They say that, with as many used-book stores as there are, many have closed in the last 20 years. They say that the Internet, while it has helped them move inventory to far-flung customers, has also driven off-the-street business, and even regulars.

“Why should anyone go to a bookstore when they can order a book from the comfort of their desk and get it in a day?” asked Michael Thompson, who has owned Michael R. Thompson Bookseller, on 3rd Street in West Hollywood, for 30 years.

Thompson said that the huge market for libraries in Southern California may help business in the short run, but it has taken a lot of books that would have been bought and sold repeatedly out of circulation permanently. But he added that the mega-bookstore trend has not affected his business adversely.

But many experienced proprietors seem hopeful. Leonard Berstein’s father opened Caravan Bookstore on Grand Avenue in 1954. Now Leonard owns it. “It’s only been fifty years — I’ll tell you in 75,” says Bernstein, when asked about the state of business. He says he sees room for everyone in the book business — the Amazons, the Borders, the independent first-run stores and himself. “I’m not going out to buy a new Lexus every year,” he says. “I’d rather spend it on books.”

An encouraging sign is the recent influx of youth into the business. Traditionally the province of antiquaries and literates of the pre-computer age — that is to say, older people — used-book stores are now increasingly owned by people in their 30s and 40s.

Samantha Scully, 36, purchased Gene de Chene Booksellers on Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A. from its aging owner last year. Faced with the store’s closing and the loss of her job, Scully didn’t want to see this neighborhood mainstay with a political bent (an antiwar poster adorns the door and a nice section of books on nuclear war sits inside) disappear. She believes she can keep the store afloat by attracting younger customers. “I wanted the store to stay here,” she said, adding that, as she spoke, three patrons in their early 20s were browsing in her shop.

Brian Paepper, 39, a Dutch-born Angeleno, owns Alias Books, formerly West L.A. Book Center, on Sawtelle Boulevard. He sees a future in the used-book business, as long as it is treated as a business. The previous owner, Paepper said, would place high prices on books he felt especially attached to, and they wouldn’t sell. He refused to utilize the Internet. To keep the store in business and relevant, Paepper has taken to selling textbooks and brought the store’s inventory online.

“Used-book stores should cater to people who can’t afford new books as they become more expensive,” he says. Still, he adds, “it’s a fool’s profession.”

But it is the foolishness, like the uselessness, like the smell of life and death on those shelves, that makes the used-book store what it is. Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW-FM’s literary talk show “Bookworm,” says: “At a first-run bookstore, people don’t necessarily like books. They like trends, or CDs, or coffee. But used-book stores are meeting places for people who like books, and not just books, but people who want to find bookishness, a substance in rare supply these days.”

Silverblatt is fond of Cambridge Bookshop on Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood — he likes to buy a book there and then go sit in Lulu’s and drink coffee; but then who wouldn’t? — and Arnold M. Herr Bookseller on Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood.

The question, then, is not whether to get addicted to used-book stores — your mental well-being and family and professional lives, happily, stand only to suffer — but which used-book stores to get addicted to.